Royal Commission in Melbourne

Justice Peter McClellan at the recent Royal Commission hearings in Melbourne

Justice Peter McClellan at the recent Royal Commission hearings in Melbourne

By Penny Mulvey

The 16th public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, relating to the Catholic Archdiocese’s Melbourne Response, concluded in Melbourne late last month.

This was the first public hearing held in Victoria although counsel assisting the Commission, Gail Furness, made it clear it would not be the last, and that other issues relating to the Catholic Church would be featured in future hearings.

However, she added a caveat. The Commission is still waiting for confirmation that the Federal Government has granted its request for an extension to enable it to fully complete the task set.

Ms Furness told the Commission that the key features of the Melbourne Response include the appointment of independent commissioners to inquire into allegations of sexual abuse, a free counselling and professional support service known as Carelink, and a Compensation Panel to provide ex gratia compensation payments to victims.

This case study focused on the process of redress (compensation) for victims who sought relief from the Melbourne Response. The Commission heard from three different people. Each read a prepared statement and responded to additional questions from legal representatives appearing before the Commission.

Christine Foster, mother of Emma and Katie, with great dignity and courage, once again told the shocking story of abuse committed on her children, and revisited by the Church leadership after the family commenced civil proceedings against the Church.

The Melbourne Response had placed a cap of $50,000 on all proven child sexual abuse claims, which the Fosters thought was vastly inadequate for the horrors endured by Emma whilst attending primary school.

Ms Foster told the Royal Commission that in 1998 they received an envelope which included two letters, one a letter from the Church’s lawyers, offering the full amount of compensation; the second a personal letter to Emma from Archbishop Pell offering ‘a personal apology for the wrongs and hurts she suffered at the hands of O’Donnell’.

However, the first letter came with a warning that if they chose to go down the path of litigation, it would be ‘strenuously defended’.

Despite the Independent Commissioner of the Melbourne Response telling Ms Foster that he would make findings that both girls had been sexually abused, when proceedings began in 2004, all defendants denied the sexual abuse by Father O’Donnell and any subsequent physical, emotional or psychological damage to the girls.

Each of the proceedings was eventually settled without any liability being admitted on the part of any of the defendants.

The Commission also focused on the advice given by the Independent Commissioner Peter O’Callaghan QC. The sworn evidence of the following two men made clear that they were strongly discouraged from going to the police with their allegations of abuse. Written correspondence appeared to support that claim although Mr O’Callaghan strongly disagreed.

The finances of the Diocese were closely scrutinised by the Commission, with the executive director of administration, Francis Moore, required to give detailed explanations relating to specific line items in different financial spread sheets.

Cardinal Pell, who established the Melbourne Response in 1996 when he was Archbishop of the Diocese appeared from Rome via video link. He told the Commission that ‘there is a long history of sin and crime within the Church, and one of the functions of the leadership of the Church is to control and eradicate this’.

The next public hearing of the Royal Commission commences in Darwin on 24 September to hear the experience of men and women who were sexually abused as children at the Retta Dixon Home between 1946 and 1980.

If you have experienced child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church or its affiliated entities and want to share your story with the Royal Commission, please call 1800 099 340.

Report all disclosures from children and young people alleging harm, abuse or neglect to both local police and child protection services. For Victoria call 13 12 78 and in Tasmania 1300 737 639.

The Uniting Church has published a guide for congregations, outlining the Church’s support of the Royal Commission and tips to help you receive a disclosure or report abuse. There are contact names and phone numbers in this document. You can find a copy of the guide on the VicTas website, www.victas.uca.org.au/RoyalCommissionBooklet.

All public hearings of the Royal Commission are streamed live via its website, and all transcripts and exhibits are freely available for download. Go to http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au

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